Not too long ago, Kent examined the Flames' various options at the centre position, which has suddenly become over-crowded again with the (re)-addition of Brendan Morrison. If there's another area of the roster where there seems to be some confusion over who fits in where, it's almost certainly the blueline.
After the trade that sent Robyn Regehr to the Buffalo Sabres, the best of the available UFA defenders were quickly snapped up by teams with money to burn while the Flames have attempted to separate out the players with potential to be a top four rearguard from those stuck at the bottom end of the rotation.
The top three players left to bear the responsibility of filling in for the departed Regehr are obvious; Jay Bouwmeester will no doubt continue to carry a heavy load while Mark Giordano will likely see his ice time and his quality of competition increase; and Cory Sarich will probably be relied upon to stay healthy and not suck either in a first pairing role with Bouw or anchoring the second pairing. That's where things get a little fuzzy, from 4-7 on the Flames' defensive depth chart.
After the jump, I'll assess their options.
Based on experience alone, awarding the position of fourth 'D' to Babchuk may seem like the right thing to do, especially considering the fact that the Flames' other options in Brodie, Butler, Mikkelson, Smith, and Carson are rather unproven in their capabilities even as 5th, 6th, and 7th defencemen. However, as most of you will remember when it was announced that Babchuk had been re-signed not too long ago, the 27-year old has never proven himself to be capable of taking on responsibilities greater than those of a bottom-pairing defender either. The Ukrainian struggled when exposed to tougher levels of competition last season, and Brent Sutter responded by sheltering him with cushy ZoneStarts against third and fourth liners and lots of powerplay time.
Given that he could potentially be playing on a defence pairing with Cory Sarich--the veteran not exactly renowned for his foot speed or positioning--and against second-liners, I'd hesitate to throw Babchuk into the fire when we know what kind of player he is and what kind of circumstances he needs to be successful. It's extremely unlikely that he's going to become a Robyn Regehr stand-in at his age and at this stage in his career, so why not give the position to someone that could be?
Is it a leap to say that Brodie could be a top-four defenceman? Of course it is, we've barely seen him in action; but because of that small sample size at the NHL-level, it's almost easier to say that about him than anyone else currently in the Flames' rotation. Brodie was one of the Heat's best players offensively last season (which isn't saying much), but reportedly struggled with the defensive side of his game at times. This is not necessarily a big issue for a defenceman playing his first season in the minors, especially one drafted in the third round, and you have to think Brent Sutter and Craig Hartsburg, both well-known for their defence-first approach and their ability to to work with young players, will be able to whip him into shape. Is Brodie ready for top-four minutes? Maybe not, but we won't know until he is legitimately put to the test.
Flames fans have been bombarded with somewhat conflicting reviews of Chris Butler since he came to Calgary in the Regehr trade. He's a young defender without much experience taking on the heavy lifters at the NHL-level, but with more experience outright than someone like T.J. Brodie, if that means anything to anyone. He excelled against the quality of competition he played last season without the benefit of an elevated ZoneStart ratio, which is encouraging considering he's still young, but not an immediate indicator that he's ready to face bigger and better offensive threats without a steadying presence alongside him. I wouldn't be opposed to Butler maybe seeing some time with Mark Giordano, but I don't want Gio to suffer as a result of having to babysit him given that he himself will likely have to adjust to playing tougher competition than he has become accustomed to.
Brendan Mikkelson/Brett Carson
I lumped these two together because of the relatively small sample size we have to judge them by in a Flames uniform and because of the fact that I'm finding it really tough to separate them in terms of ranking on the defensive depth chart. Carson had no points in six games after being picked up on waivers by the Flames at the trade deadline last season and despite spending some time at forward, and Mikkelson had one assist in nineteen games with the Flames last season. I know some people in the Flames blogosphere weren't fans of the recently-signed Mikkelson last season, and he didn't stick out in a particularly negative or positive way to me, but I can't see him acting as much more than a seventh defenceman/injury call-up next season, especially given the fact that he has a two-way contract.
Like Mikkelson, Carson has good size and is an above-average skater, but given that he is two years older than Brendan, I can't see his ceiling being much higher. Carson does have the advantage of being on a one-way deal, however, but as we've seen in the past with guys like Mikkelson, that doesn't necessarily mean a secure and stable job with the big club.
Derek Smith/Jordan Henry
See above. Henry was acquired in the deal that sent Keith Seabrook to the Florida Panthers and has never seen a game in an NHL uniform. Smith is also an un-drafted defender in his mid-to-late 20s who has just 11 games of NHL experience with the Ottawa Senators. It appears that both of these guys will be mainstays on Abbotsford's blueline next season after the Heat lost Matt Pelech and Gord Baldwin in the off-season, and likely won't crack the roster on the big club unless the Flames run into some serious injury trouble.
One of the more interesting pick-ups for the Flames this summer, Wilson is also an un-drafted player who has been one of the highest-scoring defenders in the AHL for the past couple of seasons, although he is the oldest of the bunch at 28. He scored five points (3G, 2A) in 15 games with the Florida Panthers last season (his highest total at the NHL level to date) and could prove to be a serviceable 6/7 defenceman with some offensive upside if given the chance--the second year of his contract is a one-way deal, meaning we could potentially see him in Flames silks in 2012-13, if not this coming season.
After dealing Robyn Regehr, Feaster failed to replace him with a defenceman of similar calibre; that much is true. Are there some decent players in the mix here? Possibly, we won't know until we see them in action, but I suppose your perspective on the way the Flames' blueline is constructed depends on your perspective on how they'll fair next season. If they're again pushing for a playoff spot until the final days of the regular season, it might look weak in comparison to other Western Conference teams; if they're pushing for a top-ten draft pick, well, it may look just fine. For the time being, it just sort of looks like Feaster wrangled up all of the unproven free agent defenders he could find hoping for the increased probability that one would prove to be a diamond on the rough, but I'm not sure that that's the way it works in hockey or in sports in general. For his sake (and ours), I hope it is.